Exploring both the micro and macro sides of the U.S. preoccupation with security over the next two weeks, “Frontline” looks first at the sensationally titled “When Kids Get Life” — documenting teens sentenced to lengthy prison stays — followed by the more sweeping “Spying on the Home Front,” questioning Bush administration domestic surveillance policies in the post-Sept. 11 world. Each project has its merits, though the first on incarcerated kids feels imbalanced, tipping the scales in its sympathy toward those serving time, while examining issues that receive too little attention in the commercial news space.
“The politics of criminal punishment in the U.S. often trump issues of justice,” Columbia U. law professor Jeffrey Fagan observes during “When Kids Get Life,” summing up why such a disproportionate number of Americans — 2,200 inmates — are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as teens, compared with a mere 12 in the rest of the world.
Filmmaker Ofra Bikel focuses on five cases in Colorado, where one of the imprisoned youths, Erik Jensen, cites the hysteria that followed the Columbine massacre as having fostered a throw-the-book-at-’em mentality regarding lawbreaking teens. In some instances, the kids were victims of sexual abuse by the people they murdered, or convicted on flimsy evidence.
Bikel builds a convincing and emotional argument about the knee-jerk response of imposing harsher punishments in response to media-stoked anxiety, but it’s also clear the producer is on an advocacy mission in the way the interviews with the perpetrators and their parents are conducted. The documentary also would have benefited from either tightening up the case studies or excising one of them in pursuit of a shorter running time.
“Spying on the Home Front,” by contrast, soberly presses for a discussion about the tradeoff between security and civil liberties in the face of data-mining technologies that have made it possible to gather information in unprecedented ways. Deftly reported by Hedrick Smith, the most chilling exchange comes from John Yoo — the Justice Dept. lawyer who wrote memos justifying the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program — who seems to advocate nearly boundless executive power so long as the preemptive inquiries are conducted in the name of thwarting terrorism.
As a former FBI official, Larry Mefford, puts it: “How much security do you want, and how many rights do you want to give up?” — mirroring a tension with profound implications that Ted Koppel framed in one of his Discovery Channel specials.
Fear, ultimately, is the force driving both of these documentaries — whether from terrorists without, or homicidal children within. In that respect, “Frontline” remains a welcome haven of thoughtful reporting, especially when juxtaposed against TV news fare that’s too busy trying to stoke such apprehensions to consider the underlying causes.